Where the turtles roam
Hawksbill turtles are critically endangered due to a multitude of human threats including habitat destruction, global warming, poaching and discarded long-line fishing nets.
Earthwatch fellow Brian McNeill, sponsored by Melbourne Water, has recently returned from two weeks of remote life on Ingram Island, living and working alongside six other volunteers, two PhD students and turtle researcher Ian Bell.
Having people from different countries and backgrounds, Brian wasn't sure what was going to happen but soon found the team had a lot in common, "I think having a common goal can bring anybody together and on this trip it did," he says.
Brian became a huge admirer of Principal Investigator Ian Bell and the work he and his team have been doing on these remote islands.
"Ian was exactly what you would expect from someone setting up and organising this trip. A confident, knowledgeable man who instills confidence in others around him and his volunteers. He was relaxed, patient and made me feel very welcome and I never hesitated in asking him a question or approaching him about anything."
"His leadership qualities were great and I learnt more off him about leadership than anybody else I have met. His humour was a valuable part of his skills and I thank him for his contribution to my own personal development."
Lack of facilities, technology and entertainment and the conveniences of everyday life had quite the positive effect on the team.
"The remoteness of the island was majestic and made the experience all that much better. We had basic showers, fresh water, plenty of tasty food (I even liked the spam) and even with the basic setup there was enough mod cons to get through two weeks with ease."
Days were filled with monitoring both Hawksbill and Green turtles. Data was collected by measuring the maximum and minimum length of the carapace [the turtle's shell], weighing the turtles by using a harness and scale and lifting them with two people on the end of a plank.
Tagging turtles and entering data on the sex, age, breeding history and future of turtles and taking DNA sample vials where all part of a day's work.
"A usual day would go something like this; wake up around 5.30 or 6.00am and wonder down to the communal tent by the water's edge to eat breakfast. We were then given a brief run down on the weather, which if choppy weather was to be found, team members would find themselves being bashed about in boats. We’d then go back to our tents, put on yesterday's “wet” wet suit which although others found this to be the worst in the morning, it made me feel invigorated!"
With three boats to choose from and two volunteers and one researcher in each, teams would then head out to a particular reef, about 30 minutes to one hour away.
"We'd wear crash helmets and someone would spot the turtles while another would jump off the front of the boat and grab hold of a turtle. There was an element of danger to this task compared to years spent back in the OH&S world," laughs Brian, "Absolute best thing I’ve done in my life!"
Clear communication was needed from those on the boat, and strangely enough, Brian compares the process of locating a turtle from the boat to a backyard sport. "It was like playing cricket, someone would be saying "wait, wait, wait…" and then you'd hear "when you're ready" then you would dive in after the turtle."
Another strange revelation is the fact these field assistants use the term "Turtle Rodeo-ing" to describe the method used for catching the turtles as once caught, the turtle would be lassoed around the fin and brought onto the boats.
Green turtles were studied on the boat (by PhD students) and then released safely back in to the water, while Hawksbill turtles were brought back to the island for further analysis. They were then assisted back into the sea about an hour later where their inner "magnetic-mind-map" led them straight back to where they were captured, to continue their ocean journey.
A total of 286 turtles were caught by end of trip; 212 Green Turtles and 72 Hawksbill Turtles, including two Loggerheads which was very rare and another highlight for the team.
Living on a remote island where daily tasks were to catch turtles to study and then release seems to have left Brian with an inordinate number of highlights and memories.
"We saw three dugongs over the course of the expedition. At the end of trip, an amazing highlight was when Ian allowed me to have a go at catching a dugong,"
Brian explains this would not have been possible had he and his team not spent the last two weeks honing their "rodeo-ing" skills and been trusted enough by Ian who gave them the green light.
The procedure involved having to wait for the dugong to take a second breath of air then the team would dive on him. Once the dugong is above water, he’s quite happy to be surrounded by people. Although the experience only lasted about two minutes, the team couldn’t have been more thrilled.
The dugong was about 2.5 m long and what Brian describes as being halfway between a sea-cow and a dolphin, "To be that close to a creature like that and know you couldn't do this anywhere else, was just fantastic."
When asked to recall his least positive experience, Brian was quick to answer, "I think leaving was hard for me as I was just getting settled into life on Ingram Island. This was the greatest adventure I have been on and it is going to be hard to top that!"
Brian recalls how a boat of people traveling the world stopped in at Ingram Island and he thought being a tourist, is a total difference experience. "Being relied upon as a volunteer and actually living the experience rather than getting a glimpse was so different and so much more fulfilling."
"As humans, we are also having a negative effect on breeding grounds by developing our coastal areas on the beach that would have once provided safe nesting grounds."
Brian believes that without real funding and promotion of this problem, things will continue to slide at a fast rate until we have reached the point of no return.
"This expedition I hope will highlight the decline in numbers, the fragile state that these turtles are in and the global migration and problem we have. These expeditions are life changing and open your eyes to a lot of issues but not enough people in our country and world are experiencing them."
Learn more about Hawksbill Turtles of the Great Barrier Reef and help scientists monitor key nesting and foraging populations of this critically endangered species to develop sustainable management plans.